Archive for January, 2016

Thai junta pressures Facebook, Line to censor online posts — Former PM Yingluck Shinawatra charged for violating the Computer Crime Act

January 31, 2016

Reuters | Sun Jan 31, 2016 8:51am EST

Thailand’s military government will try to persuade media companies Facebook and Line to comply with court orders to remove content it considers harmful to peace and order, a senior official said Sunday.

The junta-appointed NRSA advisory council plans to meet executives from the two companies in the next three months, council member Major General Pisit Paoin told Reuters.

The government has been granted court orders for the removal of content that damages the country and the monarchy and affects peace and order, which companies have rarely complied with. The firms would be asked to in future respond quickly to such rulings, he said.

Thailand’s junta has faced repeated criticism for what rights groups say is a deepening slide into authoritarianism since the army took power in May 2014.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha

Its previous attempts to get social media platforms to take down political postings have been largely ineffective, although the country has blocked thousands of websites hosting lese majeste content.

Numbers of people arrested under the laws against criticizing the monarchy have also risen sharply.

Thai representatives for Facebook and Google could not immediately be reached for comment.

Thai authorities made a similar request over content on Jan. 22 to technology giant Google, which owns the YouTube video sharing platform, Pisit said.

Authorities have also increasingly cracked down on criticism of the junta.

Yingluck Shinawatra greets well-wishers and supporters as she arrives at the supreme court on Tuesday.

YingluckShinawatra greets well-wishers and supporters. Photograph: Wallace Woon/EPA

A former politician from the Pheu Thai party of deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was charged on Friday for violating the country’s Computer Crime Act for sharing on line a video mocking junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

(Reporting by Pairat Temphairojana and Aukkarapon Niyomyat. Writing by Aubrey Belford; John Stonestreet)

David Cameron Talking Brexit With EU — Wants to immediately restrict UK benefits to EU migrants if Britain votes to stay in EU

January 31, 2016

London (AFP) – British Prime Minister David Cameron on Sunday began talks pressing EU president Donald Tusk to allow the UK to immediately restrict benefits to EU migrants if Britain votes to stay in the bloc.

The pair shook hands outside Cameron’s Downing Street office before heading inside to thrash out the details over a meal of salmon, beef and pear and apple crumble.

If the British people voted to stay in the EU in a referendum, Cameron’s proposed “emergency brake” would come into force immediately after the vote and exclude migrants from other EU countries from claiming benefits such as income top-ups for low-paid workers until they had paid into the British system.

“The Prime Minister will tell Tusk tonight that an emergency brake on in-work benefits would have to apply immediately if it is to form part of a deal on the UK renegotiation,” the senior government source said.

“A deal will only be possible if a brake would apply to current levels of EU migration to Britain, could be triggered immediately after the referendum and would apply long enough to resolve the underlying problem.”

David Cameron (right) meets with the European council president, Donald Tusk, at No 10 before talks to finalise an EU reform package, January 31, 2016. Photograph: Toby Melville/PA

The government says it wants to limit in-work benefits as it considers it a “pull factor” encouraging large numbers of Europeans to come to the UK in search of work.

The number of European job seekers has become a hot political issue in Britain and key driver of anti-EU sentiment.

Yet Cameron is under increasing pressure from his own centre-right Conservative party, which has a strong eurosceptic contingent, to come back with a robust deal.

Opinion polls currently suggest that Britons would vote to leave the EU in a so-called “Brexit” by a small margin.

– ‘Pretty thin gruel’ –

Cameron has set out four areas in which he wants reform — migrant benefits, safeguards against more political integration in the EU, protection of countries such as Britain which do not use the euro currency and boosting economic competitiveness.

Tusk announced on Twitter that all four would be discussed, and that if progress were made he would “table my proposal to EU countries tomorrow” (Monday).

An EU source told AFP that Tusk was accompanied by his full negotiation team.

“I don’t expect Tusk to offer future treaty change on free movement” of people, the source said.

The main sticking point has been Cameron’s insistence that EU migrants employed in Britain must wait four years before claiming certain welfare payments, which could require a treaty change.

“The Prime Minister intends to leave Tusk in no doubt that he will not do a deal at any price,” added the source.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) shakes hands with European Council President Donald Tusk. September 24, 2015. AFP PHOTO/EMMANUEL DUNAND (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

British officials hope that a final deal can be nailed down at a Brussels summit being held on February 18 and 19, which Cameron would then use to campaign for Britain to remain in the 28-member bloc.

An agreement at that time would open the door to a referendum in June, but Cameron insists he is willing to hold out for as long as it takes to secure the right package of reforms, if necessary delaying the referendum until September or even next year.

Tusk’s visit comes after Cameron held a hastily-arranged meeting with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on Friday to try to resolve the British leader’s main concern — reducing the number of EU migrants coming to Britain.

Cameron emerged from the talks with Juncker saying that, while there had been “progress”, the proposal on the table was “not good enough”.

“Reflecting domestic pressure on Cameron, the co-chair of the anti-EU Conservatives for Britain group dismissed the talks as “synthetic” and a “farce”.

“It is not going to answer the concerns of the British people. We need the power in our own parliament to determine what our migration policy is,” he told Sky News.

The far-right rally at the Eastern Docks in Dover

The far-right rally at the Eastern Docks in Dover  Photo: Joel Goodman/LNP, Saturday, January 30, 2016
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From The Guardian
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A senior Tory has urged Eurosceptic MPs to show integrity and vote to leave the European Union, as David Cameron prepared to hold a crucial meeting to finalise the renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership terms.

Former defence minister Liam Fox increased pressure on figures such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove by pointing out that they will be judged on their decisions as the UK moves towards an in/out referendum.

His comments have been timed to coincide with a crucial meeting between the prime minister and Donald Tusk, the European council president, who was due at Downing Street on Sunday for a working dinner to discuss the details of proposed reforms ahead of a summit in February. A proposed “emergency brake” on EU citizens claiming welfare in the UK is expected to be discussed – but the proposal has already been dismissed by Tory Eurosceptics.

Read more:

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jan/31/eu-referendum-hilary-benn-david-cameron-failing-see-big-picture

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By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister David Cameron and European Council President Donald Tusk will meet Sunday to try to hammer out a deal aimed at keeping the U.K. in the EU, after Cameron said the existing proposal is “not good enough.”

The two men will hold talks over dinner at 10 Downing St., with Cameron due to demand powers to limit British welfare benefits to migrants from other EU countries starting immediately after an upcoming U.K. referendum on EU membership.

Welfare benefits have become the key issue, and main sticking point, in Britain’s negotiations with the rest of the EU.

The 28-nation bloc allows citizens to work and live freely among member nations — but Britain’s Conservative government says hundreds of thousands of people from Eastern Europe who have flocked to the U.K. are straining schools, hospitals and social services.

On Friday top EU officials offered Britain a mechanism known as an “emergency brake” that would let the U.K. temporarily limit tax credits — given to workers in low-paid jobs — and housing benefit to immigrants if the country’s welfare system comes under strain.

The proposal could satisfy Britain’s goal of regaining some control over immigration and other countries’ desire to maintain the principle of free movement.

Cameron said Friday that the proposal is “not good enough … but we are making progress.”

British officials say he will tell Tusk that the “emergency brake” must take effect immediately after a British vote to stay in the EU, and last for as long as it takes to reduce the level of migration. Cameron’s initial proposal was for a four-year halt.

Britain also wants to see more power ceded from Brussels to national parliaments, a reduction in EU red tape and protection for the nine EU countries, including Britain, that do not use the euro single currency.

Before the meeting, Tusk tweeted that he would “present solutions” to all of Britain’s main areas of concern. He said agreement must be acceptable to all 28 EU members, with “no compromise on fundamental freedoms.”

Despite the distance between the two sides, officials hope to strike deal at a Feb. 18-19 summit. If he gets enough reform, Cameron will urge British voters to back continued EU membership in a referendum that must be held by next year and could come as early as June.

Former State Department IG Says Hillary Clinton, State Both Lying in Email Caper

January 31, 2016

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Hillary holding up cell phone in 2010. Getty Images

By Paul Sperry

The State Department is lying when it says it didn’t know until it was too late that Hillary Clinton was improperly using personal e-mails and a private server to conduct official business — because it never set up an agency e-mail address for her in the first place, the department’s former top watchdog says.

“This was all planned in advance” to skirt rules governing federal records management, said Howard J. Krongard, who served as the agency’s inspector general from 2005 to 2008.

The Harvard-educated lawyer points out that, from Day One, Clinton was never assigned and never used a state.gov e-mail address like previous secretaries.

“That’s a change in the standard. It tells me that this was premeditated. And this eliminates claims by the State Department that they were unaware of her private e-mail server until later,” Krongard said in an exclusive interview. “How else was she supposed to do business without e-mail?”

Photo: AP

He also points to the unusual absence of a permanent inspector general during Clinton’s entire 2009-2013 term at the department. He said the 5¹/₂-year vacancy was unprecedented.

“This is a major gap. In fact, it’s without precedent,” he said. “It’s the longest period any department has gone without an IG.”

Inspectors general serve an essential and unique role in the federal government by independently investigating agency waste, fraud and abuse. Their oversight also covers violations of communications security procedures.

“It’s clear she did not want to be subject to internal investigations,” Krongard said. An e-mail audit would have easily uncovered the secret information flowing from classified government networks to the private unprotected system she set up in her New York home.

He says “the key” to the FBI’s investigation of Emailgate is determining how highly sensitive state secrets in the classified network, known as SIPRNet, ended up in Clinton’s personal e-mails.

“The starting point of the investigation is the material going through SIPRNet. She couldn’t function without the information coming over SIPRNet,” Krongard said. “How did she get it on her home server? It can’t just jump from one system to the other. Someone had to move it, copy it. The question is who did that?”

As The Post first reported, the FBI is investigating whether Clinton’s deputies copied top-secret information from the department’s classified network to its unclassified network where it was sent to Hillary’s unsecured, unencrypted e-mail account.

‘It tells me that this was premeditated. And this eliminates claims by the State Department that they were unaware of her private e-mail server until later’

 – Howard J. Krongard on the State Dept. never giving Hillary an agency e-mail address

FBI agents are focusing on three of Clinton’s top department aides. Most of the 1,340 Clinton e-mails deemed classified by intelligence agency reviewers were sent to her by her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, or her deputy chiefs, Huma Abedin and Jake Sullivan, who now hold high positions in Clinton’s presidential campaign.

“They are facing significant scrutiny now,” Krongard said, and are under “enormous pressure to cooperate” with investigators.

He says staffers who had access to secret material more than likely summarized it for Clinton in the e-mails they sent to her; but he doesn’t rule out the use of thumb drives to transfer classified information from one system to the other, which would be a serious security breach. Some of the classified computers at Foggy Bottom have ports for memory sticks.

Either way, there would be an audit trail for investigators to follow. The SIPRNet system maintains the identity of all users and their log-on and log-off times, among other activities.

“This totally eliminates the false premise that she got nothing marked classified,” Krongard said. “She’s hiding behind this defense. But they [e-mails] had to be classified, because otherwise [the information in them] wouldn’t be on the SIPRNet.”

Added Krongard: “She’s trying to distance herself from the conversion from SIPRNet to [the nonsecure] NIPRNet and to her server, but she’s throwing her staffers under the bus.”

Photo: EPA

Still, “It will never get to an indictment,” Krongard said.

For one, he says, any criminal referral to the Justice Department from the FBI “will have to go through four loyal Democrat women” — Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, who heads the department’s criminal division; Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates; Attorney General Loretta Lynch; and top White House adviser Valerie Jarrett.

Even if they accept the referral, he says, the case quickly and quietly will be plea-bargained down to misdemeanors punishable by fines in a deal similar to the one Clinton’s lawyer, David Kendall, secured for Gen. David Petraeus. In other words, a big slap on the wrist.

“He knows the drill,” Krongard said of Kendall.

Paul Sperry, a visiting media fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of “Infiltration.”

http://nypost.com/2016/01/31/this-was-all-planned-former-ig-says-hillary-state-dept-are-lying/

Egypt arrests cartoonist for illegally running a webpage

January 31, 2016
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In this Aug. 23, 2015 photo, Islam Gaweesh takes a tour of Moaez Street in downtown Cairo, Egypt. Gaweesh, an Egyptian cartoonist, who has been critical of government policies, was arrested in the capital, Cairo, on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016, and charged with running a webpage without a license, the country’s Interior Ministry said in a statement. The arrest of the cartoonist appears to be part of an intensified clampdown on activists and journalists in Egypt, where many have been detained, questioned and even forcibly disappeared in recent months. (AP Photo/Mostafa Darwish)
In this Aug. 23, 2015 photo, Islam Gaweesh takes a tour of Moaez Street in downtown Cairo, Egypt.

EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — An Egyptian cartoonist, whose work is occasionally critical of government figures, was arrested in the capital, Cairo, on Sunday and charged with running a webpage without a license, the country’s Interior Ministry said in a statement.

The arrest of Islam Gaweesh appears to be part of an intensified clampdown on activists and journalists in Egypt, where many have been detained, questioned and even forcibly disappeared in recent months.

In custody, Gaweesh was told that the only charge actually against him so far was “publishing drawings that are offensive to the regime,” his lawyer Mahmoud Othman told The Associated Press.

Most of Gaweesh’s work dealt with the mundanities of life in Egypt. One of his most recent cartoons tackled the recent cold snap in the country by showing a man asking his love interest on the phone why she is cold in an effort to appear manly. “The weather is great,” he says before being interrupted by a group of penguins in the window telling him to shut up.

One of the few cartoons Gaweesh has recently drawn that are critical of government figures targeted a foul-mouthed pro-government lawyer and lawmaker Mortada Mansour, who often threatens to beat his political opponents with his shoes. Earlier this month, Mansour was selected to head the parliament’s human rights committee.

In Gaweesh’s caricature, Mansour is shown standing next to a torturer and his victim saying: “Lash the lights out of him, but gently.”

Ever since the military overthrew Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 amid mass protests against his rule, the government has launched a crackdown on dissent, killing hundreds of protesters and throwing thousands of Islamists in prison. Many of the young pro-democracy activists who spearheaded the 2011 uprising, which was partly sparked by government limitations on freedom of speech and expression, have been swept up in the campaign.

The statement from the Interior Ministry, which runs the police force in Egypt, said Gaweesh was arrested at the headquarters of the news website, Egypt News Network, which they raided on Sunday after official investigations revealed that it was publishing news without a license.

ENN has been operating since 2011.

Earlier on Sunday, two homemade bombs in the restive north of the Sinai Peninsula killed four and wounded five members of the security forces in two separate attacks, medical and security officials said.

Violence picked up in the area, near the border with the Palestinian Gaza Strip, last week, with four civilians killed in fighting between the army and Islamic extremists, and at least six soldiers killed in roadside bombings.

Egypt has been hit with a wave of suicide bombings and militant attacks that intensified after Morsi’s ouster in 2013. A local Islamic State affiliate has claimed responsibility for many of the attacks.

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Associated Press writer Nour Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

China’s military eager for tougher action to defend against U.S. “affront” in South China sea

January 31, 2016

Observers believe Beijing does not want heightened confrontation with Washington, but the latest affront may prompt it to speed up military test flights and building of facilities over the disputed waters

By Teddy Ng
South China Morning Post

The sailing of an American naval vessel within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the disputed South China Sea last week has triggered calls among China’s military personnel for tougher action against the United States.

Beijing has condemned the Saturday incident involving guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur, saying that it strongly opposed Washington’s “provocative move”, but there are those in China who believe the rebuke is not enough to deter the US from further such action.

Other observers say Beijing does not want a heightened confrontation with Washington, although the latest affront may prompt Beijing to speed up its test flights of military aircraft and construction of facilities over the disputed waters.

READ MORE: PLA garrison ‘warns off’ US Navy destroyer sailing close to island in disputed area of South China Sea

The defence ministry said the People’s Liberation Army garrison on Triton Island – which is part of the Paracel Islands – had taken action to warn off and repel the USS Curtis Wilbur, although no details were given.

But retired colonel Yue Gang said simply warning the American warship was insufficient.

“With radars and satellites, the Chinese military is capable of detecting the movement of US ships and aircraft, and is able to deter them much earlier,” Yue said. “US ships have entered into 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands, and now they have sailed into the Paracel Islands. The US is stepping up its provocation and challenging China’s ability to defend its territory.”

A China Southern Airlines jetliner lands at the airfield on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea in January. The fact that civil aircraft have already completed test flights on the airstrip suggests that the facility is ready for military aircraft use as well. Photo: AP

Yue said tough action by Beijing against Washington would not lead to war as both nations were aware that armed conflict was not in their interests. “There will probably be more provocation if Beijing does not step up. Public sentiment in China will rise and it will become difficult for the Chinese government to handle.”

A passive response from Beijing would give the impression that the nation was weak in defending its territorial integrity, the former colonel added.

Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said Saturday’s move was aimed at challenging attempts to restrict freedom of navigation in the region and that none of the claimants of the area were informed beforehand.

State-run Xinhua yesterday published commentaries, accusing the US of being “ironic”.

“By repeatedly sending military ships on so-called “freedom of navigation” missions in the area, the US is actually abusing freedom of navigation and pursuing selfish gains at the cost of others,” read one commentary.

Another commentary said the US was “accustomed to hegemony and power politics” and China was a “victim” in the dispute.

“The US claims to be a bystander, but judging from its recent warship and aircraft activities, it is a bystander too eager to become involved,” it said.

Xu Guangyu, a retired major general and senior researcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said Beijing had prepared different responses to Washington, with the possibility of speeding up construction in the South China Sea and conducting military test flights at the new airports there.

READ MORE: China’s neighbours wary of taking sides in Sino-US South China Sea dispute

Civil aircraft had already completed test flights on the Spratly Islands – suggesting that the facilities there were ready for military aircraft use as well, Xu said.

But he said Beijing would be cautious to avoid being seen as provoking confrontation.

“China still wants to be seen in the international community as being reasonable; it is not in its interests to have confrontations with the US,” Xu said.

Zhang Baohui, a China security specialist at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, said Beijing might send more military vessels and aircraft to the disputed region to convey the message that its activities in the South China Sea would continue despite US pressure.

But it would take steps to avoid being accused of “militarising” the islands, Zhang said.

“The strategic cost for having a major confrontation with the US will be too heavy for Beijing.”

http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/1907995/china-urged-get-tough-united-states-over-uss-curtis

Syria peace talks in danger after Damascus blast kills 60

January 31, 2016
Sun Jan 31, 2016 1:26pm EST

Reuters
Children stand near damaged vehicles as residents and soldiers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad inspect damage after a suicide attack in Sayeda Zeinab, a district of southern Damascus, Syria January 31, 2016. REUTERS/STRINGER

Syria’s main opposition group met U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura for the first time on Sunday, but the talks ran straight into trouble after Islamic State bombers killed more than 60 people near the country’s holiest Shi’ite shrine.

Representatives of the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC) – which includes political and militant opponents of President Bashar al-Assad – warned they may yet walk away from the Geneva talks unless the suffering of civilians in the five-year conflict is eased.

The head of the Syrian government delegation retorted that the blasts in Damascus, which the Interior Ministry blamed on a car bomb and two suicide bombers, merely confirmed the link between the opposition and terrorism – even though Islamic State has been excluded from the talks.

The United Nations is aiming for six months of negotiations, first seeking a ceasefire, later working toward a political settlement to the civil war that has also killed over 250,000 people, driven more than 10 million from their homes and drawn in global powers.

Only on Friday, the HNC said it would boycott the process, insisting it wanted an end to air strikes and sieges of Syrian towns before joining the negotiations. This forced de Mistura – who invited the government and opposition umbrella group for “proximity talks”, in which he would meet each side in separate rooms – to set the ball rolling with only the government delegation.

Under intense pressure, notably from the United States, the HNC later relented and arrived in Geneva on Saturday. However, the group questioned how long the delegation would stay.

“In view of the (Syrian) regime and its allies’ insistence in violating the rights of the Syrian people, the presence of the HNC delegation in Geneva would not have any justification and the HNC could pull its negotiating team out,” the group’s coordinator, Riad Hijab, said in an online statement.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the talks – the first in two years – as long overdue. “I urge all parties to put the people of Syria at the heart of their discussions, and above partisan interests,” he said on a visit to Ethiopia.

A spokeswoman for de Mistura said the U.N. mediator had met the opposition delegation at its hotel, while his deputy Ramzi Ezzedine Ramzi visited the government delegates at theirs. The talks will continue on Monday.

“TOTAL” SIEGES

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged both sides to seize the opportunity to make progress. “In the end there is no military solution to the conflict,” he said in a televised statement.

However, opposition delegate Bassma Kodmani denied that her side was ready yet to negotiate. “We only came to Geneva after receiving assurances and commitments … that there would be serious progress on the humanitarian situation,” she told a news conference. “We can’t start political negotiations until we have those gestures.”

The Syrian government’s delegation head in Geneva, Bashar al-Jaafari, said the government was considering moves such as the creation of humanitarian corridors, ceasefires and prisoner releases, but suggested they might come about as a result of the talks, not before them.

“Absolutely, this is part of the agenda that we agreed upon and that will be one of the very important topics we will discuss among ourselves as Syrian citizens,” Jaafari said.

Russian air strikes have killed nearly 1,400 civilians since Moscow started its aerial campaign in support of Assad nearly four months ago, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said on Saturday.

Kodmani said the bombings had increased in the last week. “In preparations for the negotiations everything has intensified. The sieges have become total,” she said, adding later that her delegation was likely to stay at least three to four days in Geneva.

Moscow has objected to two Islamist rebel groups, Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, taking any part in the talks. However, a negotiator from Jaish al-Islam, Mohamed Alloush, told Reuters he was going to Geneva to show that the Syrian government was not serious about seeking a political solution.

A Shiite cleric stands amid Syrian pro-government forces and residents at the site of suicide bombings in the area of a revered Shiite shrine in the town of Sayyida Zeinab, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on January 31, 2016 ©Louai Beshara (AFP)

A Shiite cleric stands amid Syrian pro-government forces and residents at the site of suicide bombings in the area of a revered Shiite shrine in the town of Sayyida Zeinab, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on January 31, 2016 ©Louai Beshara (AFP)

ISLAMIC STATE CLAIM

Islamic State claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attacks in the Sayeda Zeinab district of Damascus, according to Amaq, a news agency that supports the militant group. It said two operations “hit the most important stronghold of Shi’ite militias in Damascus”.

The Britain-based Observatory put the death toll at over 60, including 25 Shi’ite fighters.

Earlier the Interior Ministry had reported at least 45 dead and 110 people wounded, while state television showed footage of burning buildings and wrecked cars in the neighbourhood.

The heavily populated area of southern Damascus is a site of pilgrimage for Shi’ites from Iran, Lebanon and other parts of the Muslim world.

The shrine houses the grave of the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Taleb, whom Shi’ites consider the rightful successor to Prophet Mohammad. The dispute over the succession led to the major Sunni-Shi’ite schism in Islam.

Islamic State has been excluded from the talks as the U.N. has classified it a terrorist group. Nevertheless Jaafari said the blasts confirmed the link between the opposition and terrorism, pointing to the attacks and comments from a leader of the Southern Front, another rebel coalition.

“This confirms what the Syrian government has said over and over again – that there is a link between terrorism and those who sponsor terrorism from one side and some political groups that pretend to be against terrorism,” he said.

Jaafari added that Damascus favoured “an enlarged national government” as one phase of the process, but made no mention of creating a transitional administration without Assad, as the opposition demands.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Laila Bassam in Beirut, Andrea Shalal in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by David Stamp; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Related:

Boko Haram Attack on Saturday burns kids alive in Nigeria — 86 dead

January 31, 2016

By ISMAIL ALFA and HARUNA UMAR

DALORI, Nigeria (AP) — A survivor hidden in a tree says he watched Boko Haram extremists firebomb huts and heard the screams of children burning to death, among 86 people officials say died in the latest attack by Nigeria’s homegrown Islamic extremists.

Scores of charred corpses and bodies with bullet wounds littered the streets from Saturday night’s attack on Dalori village and two nearby camps housing 25,000 refugees, according to survivors and soldiers at the scene just 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram and the biggest city in Nigeria’s northeast.

The shooting, burning and explosions from three suicide bombers continued for nearly four hours in the unprotected area, survivor Alamin Bakura said, weeping on a telephone call to The Associated Press. He said several of his family members were killed or wounded.

The violence continued as three female suicide bombers blew up among people who managed to flee to neighboring Gamori village, killing many people, according to a soldier at the scene who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to journalists.

Troops arrived at Dalori around 8:40 p.m. Saturday but were unable to overcome the attackers, who were better armed, said soldiers who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. The Boko Haram fighters only retreated after reinforcements arrived with heavier weapons, they said.

Journalists visited the carnage Sunday and spoke to survivors who complained it had taken too long for help to arrive from nearby Maiduguri, the military headquarters of the fight to curb Boko Haram. They said they fear another attack.

Eighty-six bodies were collected by Sunday afternoon, according to Mohammed Kanar, area coordinator of the National Emergency Management Agency. Another 62 people are being treated for burns, said Abba Musa of the State Specialist Hospital in Maiduguri.

Boko Haram has been attacking soft targets, increasingly with suicide bombers, since the military last year drove them out of towns and villages in northeastern Nigeria.

The 6-year Islamic uprising has killed about 20,000 people and driven 2.5 million from their homes.

Related:

Some of the biggest hedge funds are loading up on bets against China’s currency

January 31, 2016

By Myles Udland
Business Insider

Some of the biggest hedge fund names in the world are loading up on bets that China will sharply devalue its currency.

According to a Wall Street Journal report published Sunday, Kyle Bass, Stanley Druckenmiller, David Tepper, and David Einhorn have all positioned themselves for sharp devaluations in the yuan.

But it’s complicated.

Movement in the yuan really caught the market’s attention back in August 2015 when China devalued the yuan in a move that was the currency’s largest in a decade.

Though as FT Alphaville’s Matt Klein noted at the time, relative to some of the devaluations seen in recent financial history, this move was nothing, really.

The yuan, which is pegged against the US dollar, had been strengthening as the dollar’s value increased dramatically and China kept their target peg at the same level.

Since that August break the yuan’s value has continued to slide but is still likely far overvalued against what a market-set would be. That’s more or less the point of these hedge funds making their currency bets.

With the yuan sitting at around 6.6 against the US dollar currently, strategists at Bank of America think it could be headed to 6.9 by year-end.


source: tradingeconomics.com

The basic idea behind devaluing your currency is that it makes your exports more attractive if trade partners are able to acquire more of your goods for the same amount of nominal dollars. This does, however, impact the purchasing power of your domestic consumers and the profits of exporting corporations.

But with the People’s Bank of China publicly pledging to defend the yuan — that is, continue to keep it relatively stable against the dollar — the PBoC has been forced to spend billions of dollars to defend its peg by accumulating yuan.

As a result, the PBoC’s foreign-exchange reserves have diminished significantly.

Screen Shot 2016 01 31 at 9.11.10 AMGoldman Sachs

Earlier this week China’s People’s Daily warned investing legend George Soros against “going to war” on China’s currency after Soros made comments at the World Economic Forum in Davos that a hard landing in China was inevitable and that China’s problems were one of the “root causes” of the world economy’s current struggles, particularly in emerging markets.

Soros, you’ll recall, is one of the world’s famed currency speculators who “broke the Bank of England” back in the early ’90s. According to The Journal, a Soros representative declined to comment on any currency positions.

Bill Ackman also threw his hat into the yuan ring earlier this week when he disclosed in a letter to investors that he’s been betting on a yuan devaluation since last summer and continues to hold that position.

http://www.businessinsider.com/hedge-fund-yuan-devaluation-bets-2016-1

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CNBC

Following the blueprint pioneered by George Soros—who once successfully broke the Bank of England by launching speculative attacks against the British pound—a handful of funds are taking aim at China’s currency, according to a report.

As the world’s second largest economy grapples with an economic downturn and volatile markets, The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that some of the largest hedge funds on Wall Street are stacking up bets against the yuan. According to the report, Kyle Bass’ Hayman Capital Management recently jettisoned much of its positions so it could focus on placing bearish bets on Asian currencies, including the yuan and the Hong Kong dollar. Approximately 85 percent of the firm’s bets are now concentrated on bets that will pay big dividends if the yuan and the HK dollar fall over the next three years.

Bass told the WSJ that China’s woes are actually “much larger than the subprime crisis,” and he believes the country’s currency could plummet by as much as 40 percent.

In addition, billionaire investor Stanley Druckenmiller and hedge-fund manager David Tepper have taken short positions against the currency, also known as the renminbi, people familiar with the matter told the Journal. David Einhorn’s Greenlight Capital holds options on the yuan depreciating, the report said.

The currency recently won major international backing, after the International Monetary Fund agreed to recognize it as a reserve unit.Ironically, the hedge fund positioning as reported by the Journal suggests investors have anything but confidence in the yuan’s near-term prospects, or China’s attempts to manage its slowdown.

For years, China has carefully choreographed the currency’s movements in global markets, often guiding the currency lower. That has drawn widespread criticisms from major economies, primarily the United States, who have complained about the economic distortions caused by the yuan.

Economists widely believe that, as part of China’s attempts to engineer a soft economic landing amid global turmoil, a weaker currency is likely to be part of the strategy. Yet a yuan depreciation is fraught with risks and global sensitivities, as it would all but guarantee cheaper Chinese goods flooding other economies.

In a recent research note to clients, Lombard Street Research analysts noted that “besides the domestic challenges, effective reform requires the world to accept the consequences of China’s adjustment. This involves a weaker effective exchange rate for the yuan.”

The full report can be found on the WSJ’s website.

 http://www.cnbc.com/2016/01/31/chinas-currency-becomes-the-target-of-speculators-wsj.html

U.S. Told Australia In Advance of Latest South China Sea “Freedom of Navigation Operation” Near China-Claimed island

January 31, 2016

By Fairfax Media

Australia was warned in advance of the United States’ challenge to Beijing with the calculated sailing of a guided-missile destroyer close to a South China Sea island claimed as territory by China.

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After the US navy warship the Curtis Wilbur sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island – part of the Paracel Island chain – on Saturday Defence Minister Marise Payne stated Australia’s support for the American manoeuvre, which sparked an angry response from Beijing.

The deliberate sailing so close to the disputed island territory – the second time the US has done this in recent months – is meant to head off any attempt by Beijing to curb freedom of navigation and overflight through the strategic waters.

The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen, in the South Cina Sea.The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen, in the South Cina Sea.

“The United States has publicly declared its policy of conducting freedom of navigation operations globally, consistent with international law,” Senator Payne said.

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“It is important to recognise that all states have a right under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, including in the South China Sea. Australia strongly supports these rights.
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“Australia continues to co-operate closely with the United States and other regional partners on maritime security.”

Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with US Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris during his visit to Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. (AAP Supplied)

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Triton Island is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. And while the US stated that its gesture was aimed at all three claimants, it is being widely interpreted as a signal to China, which has lately stepped up its efforts to exert control over the South China Sea, including by building artificial islands complete with military-grade airstrips and ports.

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Senator Payne said that Australian ships and planes would “continue to exercise rights under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, including in the South China Sea”.

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Fairfax Media understands that while Australia played no support role to the US in the freedom-of-navigation patrol, Canberra was forewarned by the US that it was planning the exercise, underscoring the close co-operation between the allies on the issue.

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Senator Payne said that with 60 per cent of Australian exports passing through the South China Sea, Australia had a “legitimate interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation and overflight” in the waters.

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An Australian P-3 Orion flew through over sensitive air space in the South China Sea late last year in a move the federal government described as routine but which was widely interpreted as a signal to Beijing that Australia means to continue operating in the regional flashpoint.

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It is understood such flights by the RAAF have been stepped up in the past 18 months in a deliberate gesture to Beijing.

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Reuters quoted China’s foreign ministry as blasting the latest US move as “intentionally provocative” and “irresponsible and extremely dangerous”.

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“The American warship has violated relevant Chinese laws by entering Chinese territorial waters without prior permission, and the Chinese side has taken relevant measures including monitoring and admonishments,” China’s foreign ministry said.

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Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said no ships from China’s military were in the vicinity of the USS Curtis Wilbur when it passed near Triton Island.

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“This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants – China, Taiwan and Vietnam – to restrict navigation rights and freedoms,” he said, according to Reuters.

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Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/world/australia-knew-of-us-patrol-of-south-china-sea-20160131-gmi345.html#ixzz3yqUq0Kco
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Yemen: Hours after anti-extremism sermon, Salafi cleric abducted, tortured, killed

January 31, 2016

The Associated Press
Jan 31, 2016, 12:22 PM ET

The lifeless body of Yemen’s top Salafi cleric in the southern port city of Aden was found disfigured on Sunday hours after he was abducted following an anti-extremism sermon, security officials told The Associated Press.

Government forces seized Aden from Shiite rebels last July, but have been unable to restore order there ever since. With government forces now pushing north toward the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, the vacuum in Aden has given rise to affiliates of extremist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, who have grabbed lands and exercised control in various parts of the city for months.

The influential cleric, Samahan Abdel-Aziz, also known as Sheikh Rawi, had delivered a fiery sermon against the al-Qaida and IS branches on Friday, the officials said. His body was found bloodied and bearing signs of torture in Sheikh Othman, an area largely controlled by extremists, they added.

 

Smoke rises after Saudi-led airstrikes hit a site in Sanaa, Yemen, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016. Airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition targeting Yemen's Shiite re...

Smoke rises after Saudi-led airstrikes hit a site in Sanaa, Yemen, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016. Airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition targeting Yemen’s Shiite rebels killed over 32 people overnight including at least eight civilians in the capital, Sanaa, officials said on Saturday. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Abdel-Aziz was kidnapped by gunmen outside his mosque late Saturday in the pro-government neighborhood of Bureiqa, they said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media. They remain neutral in the war that has splintered the Arab world’s poorest country.

Yemen’s conflict pits a loose array forces fighting on the side of the internationally recognized government against the Shiite rebels and troops loyal to a former president, who together control the capital and much of northern Yemen. A Saudi-led coalition backed by the U.S. intervened on the government’s side last March.

Earlier in the day, Human Rights Watch said the rebels, known as Houthis, have for months restricted food and medical supplies to Yemen’s third-largest city, Taiz, in what it described in a statement as “serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

“The Houthis are denying necessities to residents of Taiz because they happen to be living in areas that opposition forces control,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Taiz. “Seizing property from civilians is already unlawful, but taking their food and medical supplies is simply cruel.”

The United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen said Saturday his organization is seeking ways to ensure unconditional access to Taiz, a city of about 25,000 that has been under Houthi siege and shelling for months.

World Food Program Deputy Director Adham Musallam said his group managed to bring in enough food supplies for 3,000 families in the city.

Taiz, which lies on the border between northern and southern Yemen, could be a major turning point in the civil war, potentially cementing the Houthis’ loss of Yemen’s south.

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Associated Press writer Brian Rohan in Cairo contributed to this report.